A Time for Superheroes

The past few days have been harrowing for many of us, myself included. The fear in my community is palpable, an anxiety-inducing energy that would cause palpitations in the dead. I could go into all the reasons why people I work with and work for are unsettled, but that’s not the point of this post – no, dear reader, I have something much more powerful to talk about. Tonight I was rescued by Dr. Strange.

The lady is ill! I imagine you thinking. She’s hallucinating about comic book characters and such. This can’t be healthy. Please, hear me out.

The Dr. Strange movie was good. The writing was decent, the visuals stunning, and it always helps to have a special fondness for Benedict Cumberbatch. The movie took me away from the things I was feeling – powerlessness, grief, anger – and reminded me of something I had apparently forgotten… stories are important.

This is about more than just distraction through escapism, though that has its own valid purpose. At any point in history, in any culture, you will find stories. We humans can’t seem to stop telling them. We use them to communicate experiences and provide each other with amusement, but more than that, stories remind of us of values greater than ourselves, especially in times where we’ve lost sight of those values. Dr. Strange did not fly through a window and bend space and time to fix my problems (not that I’d mind all that); the story of Dr. Strange brought to mind the important things in life that will never change. The power of fantasy, connection, a desire to do good, the mind’s ability to influence reality – those concepts exist no matter who our leaders are or how our personal circumstances change. As a character-driven writer it struck me that it’s not about the setting; twists of plot are interesting to me only insofar as the plot guides the reactions of the characters. Events happen, many of which the characters had little or no control over, but how the characters respond is what matters.

We, too, play parts in real-life stories. Our roles shift depending on the day and the perspective, one day the hero, the next the helper, later the antihero. What’s true of stories is just as true of real life. It may not seem like the time for fantasy, reading, writing, and movie-going, but I would argue that now is exactly the time for these things. We need the experiences of story-telling and story-receiving as a means of centering ourselves; ancient human experience, a higher power of sorts, connecting us to ideals and each other. Don’t stop reading. Don’t stop watching. Don’t stop creating.

Don’t stop believing in what matters most.

 

The Power of Reading: Perspective for a Dime

If my mother had read the contents of Illusions, she never would have handed it to me.

I was twelve years old, relaxing on the bed at my grandmother’s house. Wednesdays were the days that my mother and I visited my grandmother in the mountains to do work for her, and this day my mother and grandmother had gone treasure hunting at the local garage sales. Homeschooled and left to my own devices, I spent a great deal of time doing whatever I wanted – in this case, re-reading one of my very favorite books, Artemis Fowl, for about the thousandth time. I had an early review copy complete with all the pre-publishing grammatical errors and formatting problems (the fact that I enjoyed the flawed copy even more than the polished, retail copy probably should have been a sign to somebody that I would one day toil away as a writer myself).

“I found this for you at the library sale,” my mother said, tossing the slim volume to me.

The cover was simple yet intriguing: a single blue feather, surrounded by stars on a black background. The title was a single word: Illusions, by Richard Bach. I scrutinized the cover and the back matter, which told me little to nothing about the book itself. The sticker price said 10¢. Unsurprising, I thought; the poor thing was all torn up. One corner of the cover was folded over, white showing through the black background, the spine held together with the years’-old glue.

“I thought it might be your kind of thing,” she shrugged. “You’re always reading fantasy stuff.”

“Thanks,” I said, watching her disappear to tend to her much-more-important estate sale finds.

Reading the interior I discovered that the book was written in the 70’s. The first chapter looked as if it had been photocopied from an old notebook; the words were handwritten and at times difficult to read. The voice in the first chapter struck me as odd, with a cheeky bible-like description of a “master” of the world of illusions likened to a river creature. It didn’t make much sense the first time I read it, but I read it anyway. I loved to read, and something about this book was screaming read me, finish me. What I read would change my life quite permanently – much to the chagrin of my mother, whose values so violently clashed with the book that I eventually hid it from her so she wouldn’t discover what was inside.

Many people who know me by my outward behavior or my writing make the assumption that I grew up in a household where values of diversity, equality, and compassion reigned supreme. What always entertains me about this (apparently common) belief is how different my life has actually been. I grew up  being taught that LGBTQ people were horrendous, disgusting sinners who should have gotten over God’s “challenge” of their identities by remaining permanently celibate. Interracial marriages were alright for some people they supposed, except that it was against the natural order of things and “selfish” in the case of producing children from such a marriage (‘who would curse a child by making them mixed-race?’ – their words, not mine). Atheists, well, they could certainly exist in this country, but their values shouldn’t matter, and my goodness, you couldn’t ever trust them. Pagans were witches possessed by the devil – dangerous and evil, naturally. Speaking of possession, most mental illness was viewed as likely possession which could be prayed away.

I could probably go on, but I think you get the idea. Mine was a rather narrow-minded home.

This book, though, Illusions… it was not narrow-minded at all. I remember clearly the surreal experience of reading it for the first time. In the book Bach uses fictional characters to illustrate the ideas that life can be what we make it, that choices are personal and infinite in their iterations, and the concepts of “right” and “wrong” entirely depend on a person’s perspective. The very first chapter contained these words, which have stuck with me to this day –

“And what would you do,” the Master said unto the multitude, “if God spoke directly to your face and said, ‘I COMMAND THAT YOU BE HAPPY IN THE WORLD, AS LONG AS YOU LIVE.’ What would you do then?”

For a girl who had been raised to believe that there was a right way to be and a condemned sinner’s way to be, the ideas in this book were revolutionary. They were also terrifying. I had to google Richard Bach after finishing the book (in tears, I might add) to make sure that god hadn’t struck him down. Imagine my surprise when I learned that he was nearly 70 and still flying airplanes!

I’ve never met Richard Bach, and yet the words he wrote were the first step towards freeing me from a life of bigotry and hate. I don’t know if he ever even imagined that a kid would pick it up – I’m pretty sure he didn’t write it with kids in mind, but for me, it was the most important thing I read in my entire childhood. It was magic.

A book takes on a life of its own when it reaches the hands of a reader, one that the author never could have imagined. They are powerful – ideas in physical form, disseminated to hundreds or thousands of people. How could a person not want to be a part of that experience, as readers? As writers?

What books have influenced you?


Hope you enjoyed that little spiel! It’s back to the grind for me… I think I have (please let this be true!) 1-2,000 words left to write before the Forsaken Lands 2 draft is FINISHED. Seriously. I think I can, I think I can…

The First Reader You Disappoint

Today is a good day. Today I got my first sub-4-star review from someone who was disappointed in Broken. When I got it I paused and felt the initial punch of sadness – They read it and walked away unhappy?! – and then intrigue – What did they see in the words that they didn’t like?

I’m pleased to say that this is a new experience for me after a year and a half (ish) of positive reviews across the board. It’s hard to complain about that, so I’m not going to. I’m also not writing this post to confront the reader, as per author’s etiquette. I side with the large group of writers who feel it is poor form to get into arguments with readers over differences of opinion. I have certainly disliked books that other people loved in the past (*ahem* Lord of the Rings – don’t hit me!). What I’m writing about here is the thing that I love about art in general – no single piece of art is viewed the same way by all people, and that is okay. I would argue that it’s the entire point.

The same story does not have exactly the same meaning to any two people, and as a character-driven author and reader, I see those differences of opinions through the relationships we have with characters (sure, we can get bogged down in plot points and technicalities, but I find those problems much less interesting). If we look at the well-dramatized TV show Mad Men, for instance, we can find a divide in fans between those who like Don Draper and those who find him beyond redemption. Draper is an adulterer, a liar, and a drinker. He is also someone who is tormented by what he’s done and memories of where he came from; he has sparkles of kindness that show up through the lying/cheating/drinking (i.e. his care for Anna), great charisma, and a brilliant mind for advertising. What a viewer sees in Don Draper depends so much on their own experiences – to one who has been cheated on, he may be the embodiment of deep hurts. To the child of an alcoholic, he may be a reminder of a father too infrequently present. At the same time, he could actually evoke sympathy in the same person, not just for the character, but for the real-life incarnation of his indiscretions.

The prism of characterization, molded by our own experiences.

My own experiences have come into play rather prominently with the latest book I opened up, the semi-autobiographical Country Doctor’s Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov. Mikhail is a classically acclaimed physician-writer, best known for his novel, The Master and the Margarita. In Country Doctor’s Notebook he describes his experiences as a new doctor in 1917 rural Russia. As I started reading the book I felt this overwhelming sense of kinship with a man now long dead; somehow, between the pages of an almost 100-year-old book, I met a friend. There are obvious differences between our experiences as young physicians – while Mikhail was stranded in snowy Russia with inadequate resources and no other physicians to advise him, I am working in a well-appointed hospital with robust support from my elders. Where he is expected to do everything from surgery to psychiatry, I am slightly more focused in my intern year.

Those obvious differences aside, in so many ways our experiences are not different at all (starting with the fact that we are both physicians who write, though he is obviously a more successful writer than I). I think every healer has felt that sudden doomsday sensation with the first patient you see as a qualified practitioner, knowing that you are the one with the answers now, or you’re supposed to be. I laughed when Mikhail wrote about concealing a textbook on the procedure he was about to perform on top of the patient’s chart, when not a week ago I was googling the steps to procedures and drugs I was about to initiate as I was walking into a room. His desperate thoughts on his first day ‘please don’t let this be a hernia,’ are not so different than my own ‘please don’t let this be a stroke.’ Through his work I came to understand that the insecurities of the young healer are a function of who we are, regardless of when we are – all of us through time have had the same fears, and that… is kind of awesome.

As the story went on Mikhail revealed the increasingly dark side of his early years as a doctor, when he became addicted to morphine. His description of the descent into addiction was surprisingly frank for someone of his time and profession; I could not help but admire his courage. Courage aside, there’s no way to defend practicing medicine while intoxicated; what he did was not right. It was bad.

I understood it, and think what you will of me, I still felt the same connection to him. What he did wasn’t what I would ever do, and still I found him sympathetic, for whatever reason that may be.

We look at these sorts of characters in their most broken times, and for us they are so many shards of glass – tilt them one way and we see something we want to see, tilt another way and we see quite the opposite. When you have a reaction to a character, what are you seeing? Are you seeing them for who they are, or are you seeing your friends, your family?

Do you see yourself?

We will not all agree on stories, characters, or values, but what we see in them is always a part of us in some way. I could never fault someone for that. Thank you for the reviews, no matter what they say.

Do I write like a woman?

I’ll go ahead and say it since you’ll probably either find out or figure it out eventually: I consider myself a feminist. Now I’m sure I’ve lost a few of you with that statement alone, but for those of you still listening, I’d like to get a few things out there.

  • I do not hate men. In fact, I love men (one man in particular who I call my husband). The majority of my characters happen to be men, and they are (in my opinion) some of the most interesting, compelling characters in my stories.
  • I believe in equal rights for all people – gay, lesbian, queer, straight, bisexual, transexual, extraterrestrial, lens-glare white to mahogany brown. I understand that there has on occasion been friction between the feminist community and the LGBT community, so I want to be quite clear on that point in particular.
  • I’m not looking for a fight. Of course I’ll buck up and fight if you want me to… but at heart, I’m a ‘let’s all sit down together and talk about something we agree on’ kind of gal. I’d like to believe that all of us have more in common than we have differences.
  • I define who I am. Although I believe in a lot of feminist principles and loosely categorize myself as “a feminist,” I refuse to be defined by the actions of others under the same title. Do not ask me to defend the questionable actions of others. I speak for myself, and myself alone.

Now with that all out of the way (or so I’d hope), I’d like to continue on and discuss this article (blog post?) that I read earlier today. “Michelle Rodriguez Made Me Cry at Comic Con” by Kate Conway relates Kate’s personal experiences at Comic Con, specifically a panel called “Women Who Kick Ass.” The women on the panel recounted several stories about how other males on the set treated them, at times, with a lack of respect, and how the writers seemed to have difficulty writing believable scenes for them. Maggie Q described a classic scene in which her character was performing kung fu in high heels (and anyone who has ever worn high heels will tell you that there is nothing you would rather do less than perform fast, athletic movements in heels). This kind of ridiculous scene is rampant in all manner of fantasy and science fiction.

Tangent: Seriously guys, why in the world would someone as “efficient” as Seven of Nine wear something as frivolous as high heels and a catsuit? As minor and somewhat irrelevant as it is, that kind of thing has always bugged me. Fortunately Joss Whedon and whoever he works with proved that women do not have to be seen in only fancy shoes and tight-fitting outfits by choosing reasonable clothing/shoes for the characters in Firefly (Joss Whedon being, in my opinion, one of the greatest champions of feminism in Hollywood today).

Digressions aside, the following quote from Kate Conway’s article inspired this post…

In that moment, though, I didn’t know any of that. As the moderator started wrapping things up, apologizing for having to leave “right as things were getting good,” Michelle leaned forward to her mic again.

“We gotta start writing,” she said again. She meant women. “Writing, and directing, and producing the kind of content we want to see. Because otherwise, nothing’s gonna change.”

I’ve seen this kind of sentiment expressed a lot lately amongst the growing subset of feminist nerds on the internet. Anita Sarkeesian is perhaps one of the most high-profile feminist nerds, and she frequently brings up topics which either directly or indirectly lead to the conclusion that the media at large needs more fictional women as lead roles/main characters/playable avatars, and more real-world women in creatively powerful positions. These assertions are surprisingly controversial, and Anita, among other public feminist nerds, has faced a pretty severe backlash as a result.

On the writing side of things, close to half of all fantasy titles are written by women according to Slate’s Alex Heimbach, while only about 1/4 of science fiction authors are female.  The more equitable distribution of women writers in fantasy is certainly something to be happy about, and it’s equally pleasing that many of the most successful fantasy writers of the last couple decades have been women (hello, J.K. Rowling). Unfortunately, most of the data will show that there is still a disparity in female representation in general media, particularly when you look at Hollywood writers and female characters. This infographic pretty much speaks for itself:

I’ve been reading feminist philosophy, data and what have you for a long time – I’ve done enough research to firmly establish my opinion that yes, we do need more strong female characters and yes, we do need more women with creative power. I’m not saying this from an affirmative action down-with-the-boys position, but merely the position that it would be good for women and people in general if we were better represented both in print and in films. Women in the United States and in many countries all over the world still face a culture which is silently permissive of rape, perpetuates a substantial wage gap (especially if you are both female and a minority), and attacks our reproductive health choices. Portraying strong and capable women in media is one way to push society towards a world where women are viewed with complete parity to their male counterparts.

Ever since I started this journey towards actually publishing works of fiction I’ve had to evaluate my own work from a different perspective. If I’m going to stand up for my beliefs and “be the change,” as it were, it would make sense for me to put a little thought into what kind of change I hope to represent. One conversation in particular brought me to this realization.

Several years ago during an interview for a scholarly position, one of my interviewers noted that I listed “writing” as a hobby. She proceeded to ask me about what I write, so I told her: I was, at the time, working on a novel about a girl named Zikaly –

“Do you always write stories with heroines?” my interviewer interrupted excitedly.

The question caught me off-guard. It seemed a strange thing to ask – almost every story I’ve ever written has included a woman as one of the primary perspectives. It had always been my natural instinct to first write from a comfortable perspective (in this case, a female one) and add on more ambitious perspectives as the story progresses. My characters tended to (and still do) evolve pretty organically, both the men and the women. Gender was something that I typically assigned on reflex, with no particular intent. It wasn’t until this interview that I realized that these seemingly small creative choices could potentially make a profound impression on my prospective readers.

The way that I approach gender, race and sexuality in my writing has been changing since that encounter as I’ve started to accept that someone else might read what I’ve written. With Tragedy more than any other story, I’ve tried to be as gender- and race-inclusive as I can. I will be the first to admit that I fail at those goals in many ways. My two main characters are pretty light-skinned (though I do describe Teveres as “honey-skinned” because my gods he is delicious). Most of my POV characters, and really most of my characters as a whole, are male. I do have a gay man and a bisexual man in the story, though they are not usually in the spotlight. It might be hubris that I believe I am decent at writing about men as a woman – and maybe hubris again that I think I can write well for women when I, like so many others, fall into many of the creative traps that are all around me in the media.

All of this leads to my question, and the title of this post: Do I write like a woman? Does my gender make my perspective as an author somehow different from my male counterparts? I’m not sure. I can’t read my book the way you can; what I’ve written will never be new to me. I do know one thing for certain – none of my characters, male or female, will ever willingly enter a fight wearing heels.

What does it mean to be a writer, anyway?

I’ve a mind to talk about something more philosophical today, so I’d like to discuss with you a little bit about writing as an activity. I’ve had enough of talking just about myself and my work. Shameless self-promotion, while necessary, is not actually something I’m very comfortable with. For as much as I write, I’m not actually very comfortable writing about me. As a writer of fiction, I habitually create a comfortable shield around myself in the form of my characters. They do the talking for me. They show emotion, some of it mine and some of it not – they express opinions, a hodgepodge of things I do believe, once believed, or have observed others to believe. When you read my fiction, you’re seeing a broken glass reflection of me. There are pieces there which are whole, some of which fit together. There are jagged edges and deception in what you see. It’s an illusion, really, but it’s based on something quite real.

When I said I wanted to discuss writing, this is the kind of thing I was talking about.

Every person who writes, even if it’s just a page of prose or a verse of poetry now and then, writes for a different reason. While many people find writing to be a chore, I think most of us who write do so to start with because it is fun. Before this most recent move I had a roomate who would occasionally run into me in the halls, pale-faced and sleep deprived from spending my limited free time on Tragedy. Our conversations typically went something like…

Roomate: “So, how’s it going?”

Me: “I just wrote 2,000 words… I’m out of words…”

Roomate: “Wow, that’s rough.”

Me: “Rough? No, it’s… it’s great.”

My roomate, of course, was not a writer. To him the idea of spending hours in front of computer screen with a word document and music blaring might be some kind of torture. For me, though… for me that time spent in another world so far from the hospital was my escape (still is my escape, I should add). The adventure of writing and the challenge of marrying the right characters with the right story is as enjoyable if not more so than sitting down to play a videogame. Lord knows I only have so much patience for The Sims.

Beyond the recreational aspect, writing can take on a more profound meaning. Naturally I can only speak for myself (is that not the point of a blog, anyway?), but my writing has most always been about communicating the stories of the characters in a way which evokes sympathy from the reader. I’ve always enjoyed reading stories that are character-driven, the kind of work that explores the motivations of people in a provocative fashion. I enjoy writing the same kind of stories I enjoy reading – I can’t say with certainty that I am always successful, but I do know that writing has opened my own mind in many ways, helped me test the boundaries of my own biases. In my humble opinion, a great story is one which helps the reader learn something about themselves or about the world that they didn’t know before.

Really, the same can be said for any form of art. Creative endeavors can be tremendous tools for personal betterment and even social change. It communicates with us, normalizes behaviors, and gives us the chance to expand beyond our sometimes-limited perspectives. Exposing ones self to creativity is just as important as playing the role of creator, as we humans learn the most from those around us.

I do apologize for the rambling nature of this post, but nonetheless hope you found it entertaining. To close, I’d like to leave you with a few artists who have expanded my mind over the years, odd as they may seem on first glance: Richard Bach, author of Illusions; Anne Bishop, author of The Black Jewels Trilogy; The Barenaked Ladies, the band which kept me sane through my adolescence; and Lindsey Stirling, whose music played in the background during most of the draft of Tragedy.

What artists have inspired and enlightened you?